Miscegenation and “Purity”

Resurrecting the false connections between abolitionism and amalgamation, Lincoln’s opponents invented a new term in the midst of the Civil War to describe interracial relationships: “miscegenation” (the blending of races). Aiming to cost Lincoln and his party the 1864 election, two Democrats (posing as Republicans) promoted the notion that the Republican Party not only condoned interracial marriages, but actively encouraged them.

An 1864 anti-Republican satire using white northerners’ fears of racial mixing.

The new term did not cost Lincoln reelection, but its overnight and enduring popularity highlights the public’s desire to describe something that had long been around, but suddenly seemed in need of a new moniker in order to associate it with heightened fear of black freedom. Miscegenation permanently rooted itself into America’s racial lexicon and the fear of it became a political wedge issue for at least a century thereafter.

Fears of miscegenation, interracial marriage, or “social equality” arose in nearly every debate over political, economic, and social rights. The topic would even make an appearance in the rationale for the Supreme Court decision that allowed the system of Jim Crow discrimination and supposed “separate but equal” to continue: the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling. “Laws forbidding the intermarriage of the two races,” the court reasoned, “may be said in a technical sense to interfere with the freedom of contract, and yet have been universally recognized as within the police power of the State.” The foundation of post-Civil War white supremacy rested firmly upon opposition to miscegenation.

A rally against integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1959. Protestors connected school desegregation to race mixing and race mixing to both communism and “the Anti-Christ.”

The far more chilling effect of irrational white fears over miscegenation, however, emerged outside of the court system: lynching.

Between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 black men were publicly and ritualistically murdered by white mobs. Roughly a third were accused of raping white women, but the alleged need to protect white women from black men—universally portrayed as violent, lustful, and savage—justified lynch mobs’ actions to the larger white public. Black journalist Ida B. Wells demonstrated that many of these accusations of rape stemmed from consensual interracial relationships that had been discovered by white women’s disapproving relatives. Nevertheless, the lynching continued, as did white fears about racial “purity.”

A close examination of almost any act of racial violence against African Americans reveals the specter of rape accusations. A mob hung, shot, and burned William Brown in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919 after he was accused of raping a white woman (top). Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 after supposedly whistling at a white woman (left). A 1921 newspaper article encouraging violence after a black teen allegedly assaulted a white teen in Tulsa, Oklahoma (right). The resulting riot leveled 35 blocks of the city’s black section and killed an estimated 39 to 300 African Americans.

The concept of racial “purity” evolved through interracial marriage law. In post-Civil War Arkansas, a black delegate to the state’s constitutional convention—William H. Grey—mocked a white delegate's insistence that interracial marriage be banned by questioning how such a feat could even be accomplished given that "the purity of the blood, of which the gentleman speaks, has already been somewhat interfered with."

Legislation would become a “farce,” Grey insisted, as scientific boards proved unable to draw a line between black and white given the extent of racial intermixture under slavery (perpetrated by white men, he pointedly noted). Although sound in principle, Grey proved incorrect in the end; state governments found ways to define race.

He was right, however, that the distinction between black and white would not be simple. States’ definitions of the degree of “blood quantum” required to be defined as being a particular race varied over time and place. By the 20th century, any known presence of African ancestry (the “one-drop rule”) became the measure in many states and in the white public’s imagination. Instead of prejudice lessening over time, whites grew increasingly paranoid about marrying someone with “invisible blackness” and took up genealogy en masse to ferret out “passers.”

 

A Ku Klux Klan flyer published in 1972 promoting the idea that race mixing would threaten America’s wellbeing (left). A certificate from 1924 mockingly “guaranteeing” a person’s racial “purity” (right).

Ultimately, county clerks served as the front line in determining race when couples requested marriage licenses and birth certificates. More than merely dictating who could marry each other, racial designations determined where a person could live, work, learn, and socialize.

As the cornerstone of the edifice of Jim Crow, the number of prohibitions against interracial marriage only increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as new states entered the Union.

Western states adopted prohibitions and included additional groups to discriminate against: people of Asian and American Indian descent. Revealing their true intent to be maintaining white “purity,” none of these laws bothered to prohibit interracial marriages among nonwhite groups or to prohibit marriage among different European nationalities. An Asian American and an African American were free to marry each other, but neither could marry a white person. In contrast, no laws prevented, say, an Italian American and a Polish American from marrying.

 

Sheet music from 1897 mocking African Americans and Chinese Americans (left). “The Melting Pot” analogy to celebrate America as a blend of nationalities first came into use with Israel Zangwill’s popular 1908 play of the same name (right). Conspicuously—and purposefully—absent from his melting pot were African Americans and Asian Americans who Zangwill believed should establish their own homelands elsewhere, even as he advocated for intermarriage among European nationalities.

Even where interracial marriage bans had been repealed, a prominent interracial marriage could ignite white hysteria. Every state in the North except Indiana had repealed its ban by 1887, but when World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson wed interracially in Chicago for the second time in late 1912, white America panicked. In 1913, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure to prohibit interracial marriage in the District of Columbia. Eleven of the 19 states without prohibitions at that time introduced—and nearly passed—bans.

The panic diminished somewhat after an all-white jury convicted Johnson on trumped-up charges of crossing state lines with a woman “for immoral purposes,” but the precariousness of the issue remained a warning for would-be interracial couples and supporters of equal rights.

 

World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson and Etta Terry Duryea, the first of his three white wives, in 1910 (left). Attempts to ban interracial marriage at the federal level swept the nation after Johnson’s second marriage to a white woman in 1912. A 1910 cartoon referencing the race riots in more than 50 cities after Jack Johnson defeated the white boxer James Jeffries in what was billed “the fight of the century” and Jeffries the “Great White Hope” (right). Johnson's marriage to a white woman likely fueled rioters’ anger.

“One Bombshell at a Time is Enough”: Miscegenation and Civil Rights

Given the widespread public opposition—94 percent of white Americans opposed interracial marriage in 1958—most civil rights groups did not place repealing marriage bans at the top of their agendas.

Nevertheless, the modern campaign to overturn interracial marriage prohibitions began in California when a Hispanic woman legally defined as white and a black man sought to wed in 1947. In the resulting case, Perez v. Sharp (1948), the California Supreme Court became the first court in the 20th century to declare interracial marriage bans unconstitutional, violating California’s constitution. Fearing a similar decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, the state declined to appeal the decision, although the California legislature waited until 1959 to repeal its anti-miscegenation laws.

In the years that followed, facing weaker opposition to the marriage injunctions because of demographic differences, western states gradually repealed or overturned marriage bans. Despite appeals to the Supreme Court from various states, the highest court in the land steadfastly avoided hearing cases on the topic.

A map depicting the range of years in which states repealed interracial marriage bans.

Even cases on seemingly unrelated matters brought outrage from critics who lambasted the court for rulings that they insisted would lead to “race mixing.”

When a case challenging interracial marriage bans reached the Supreme Court just a year after Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), Justice Felix Frankfurter worried that ruling on the case would “seriously handica[p] the enforcement of … the [school] segregation cases” and he convinced his fellow justices to avoid the case. Justice Thomas C. Clark likewise concluded against hearing cases on interracial marriage bans after Brown, as “one bombshell at a time is enough.” Leading civil rights groups likewise stayed away from cases on interracial marriage for fear of damaging all other efforts.

Since the surprise victory in Perez, however, the ACLU had begun searching for an ideal test case to overturn bans everywhere. Given public sentiment, the ACLU sought to diminish resistance by finding a white male—preferably a veteran—seeking to marry a nonwhite—ideally Asian—woman.

Unlike after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, no officials who refused to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples were arrested or removed from their positions. A Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, garnered national attention and arrest in 2015 after her refusal to issue marriage licenses.

Infringing upon a white male’s rights and avoiding the more controversial black-white pairing seemed the most promising strategy. Few such couples, however, desired to undergo the long, uncertain, and public process of being such a test. The ACLU had nearly given up hope when they received Mildred Loving’s letter and accepted the case despite the black-white pairing.

Like the South’s response to landmark civil rights rulings before it, little changed immediately after the Supreme Court decision on Loving in June 1967. Most southern states continued to resist the court’s decree and placed the burden on couples to appeal to federal courts if denied marriage licenses.

A county clerk in Tennessee stalled marriages by insisting that he could not issue licenses to interracial couples until personally receiving a copy of the Supreme Court ruling. Federal judges had to force Delaware, Louisiana, and Arkansas to issue licenses in 1967 and 1968. A Mississippi state judge issued an injunction to prevent an interracial couple from marrying in 1970. Although Virginia began issuing licenses to interracial couples, it continued to issue pamphlets stating that interracial marriage was illegal.

Although some states repealed their marriage bans within a year or two of the Loving decision, others stretched the process out. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee repealed their bans during the 1970s while Delaware waited until 1986 and Mississippi, 1987.

Two states and at least one official, however, outlasted all others. South Carolina and Alabama kept their bans until 1998 and 2000, when referendums removed them—but even then, 38 and 40 percent of voters opposed repeal. In 2009, a Louisiana Justice of the Peace resigned after being told he could not continue to refuse to marry interracial couples.

Guess Who’s on the Cover of Time

Despite the white South’s intransigence, just months after the Loving decision, two other events cemented 1967 as a momentous year for interracial marriage and for shaping the public’s views on it. In September 1967, Peggy Rusk—the white daughter of Secretary of State Dean Rusk—and Guy Smith—a black Georgetown graduate student—married. In a move unthinkable a few years earlier, Time ran a photo of the newlyweds on its cover and celebrated their union as “a marriage of enlightenment.”

 

Secretary of State Dean Rusk with President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the year after he offered his resignation because his daughter, Peggy Rusk, planned to marry Guy Smith, a black graduate student (left). The movie poster for the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (right).

Just a few months after that, a comedy-drama hit theaters staring three of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner centers on a white woman bringing her black fiancé home to meet her parents. Her liberal parents’ ideals are tested, but ultimately conclude that the pair are “two wonderful people… who happened to fall in love” and give the union their blessing. As the year’s most talked-about film and one of the first respectful onscreen portrayals of an interracial couple—even if the film made Sidney Poitier’s character too perfect and whitewashed white racism—it did much to nudge public opinion towards acceptance.

 

The first film about an interracial romance, D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919)used a white actor to portray a Chinese man in love with an English girl (left). Like many films that would follow on interracial romance, it ended in tragedy. The Motion Picture Production Code prohibited the depiction of interracial romances until 1956. Hollywood circumvented the prohibition by casting white actors for nonwhite roles so relationships would not technically be interracial. Island in the Sun (1957) featured the first actual onscreen kiss between a black actor and a white actor, to much public controversy (right).

Rising Rates, Persistent Attitudes

Nevertheless, public opinion proved slow to change in the coming years, especially for black-white pairings. In 1990, 63 percent of non-blacks said they would oppose a close relative marrying a black person. Rates of disapproval for a close relative marrying a Hispanic or Asian person—more often seen as cross-cultural marriages than cross-racial ones—were far lower.

Regardless of the type of interracial pairing, though, not until 1997 did a majority of Americans express approval of interracial marriages. Since then, approval has increased exponentially. In 2013, the last year Gallup bothered to ask, 87 percent of Americans approved.

Interracial marriage rates have also vastly increased in recent years. One out of every six newlyweds today marries someone of a different race. Over a quarter of all Latinos and Asians marry interracially, a figure that nearly doubles when only including those born in the United States. Interracial marriage rates are far lower for black-white unions, but they have seen the most dramatic growth in the rate of intermarriage—more than tripling from 5 percent in 1980 to 18 percent of black newlyweds today.

A chart depicting falling American support for interracial marriage prohibitions from 1972 to 2002.

Although considerably higher than even a few years ago and incomparable to the miniscule rates before Loving, intermarriage rates are still relatively low—especially between blacks and whites. If Asians and Hispanics are removed from intermarriage figures, intermarriage rates remain extremely low. White opposition to a close relative marrying a black person has decreased dramatically, but still constitutes 14 percent of white views in 2017.

These rates of marriage and disapproval speak to more than just continued individual discrimination. They also reflect the larger structural barriers that remain entrenched and that interracial marriage bans helped build. Many schools, workplaces, and communities in the United States remain highly segregated and therefore offer few opportunities for blacks and whites to meet and marry.

A 2013 Cheerios commercial in which racist comments on YouTube about the interracial couple featured in the advertisement caused the company to close the comment section.

Even as some pundits began to discuss America as a post-racial society in the early Obama years, a seemingly benign cereal commercial revealed both the ugliness of the anonymity of the internet and the staying power of virulent opposition to interracial pairings. 

The 2013 Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family garnered so many hateful YouTube remarks that the company closed the comment section. Harkening back to the nation’s long history of hysteria over interracial pairings, many commenters described the commercial as “disgusting” and “vomit” inducing. Others hatefully reveled in racial stereotypes by suggesting that the black father would beat or abandon his white wife. Although the majority of comments were positive, the amount and strength of the vitriol underscores the lingering public opposition and its deeply ingrained nature. 

For those who were surprised by the vitriol surrounding the Cheerios ad, a 2017 film illustrates how continued racism against African Americans and interracial couples is often more subtle, if no less harmful. Jordan Peele’s satirical dramedy Get Out is perhaps today’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, except it’s a horror film. A surprise mega-hit, Get Out’s witty examination of microaggressions and use of race to subvert horror tropes has resonated at the box office and to critics alike.

Like its predecessor fifty years earlier, Get Out features white liberals with seemingly the best of intentions (“If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term” declares the white father to his daughter’s black suitor by way of introduction). Albeit ad absurdumGet Out showcases the continued barriers to interracial intimacies and how fraught the wider public and the closest family can make these relationships.

Celebrating Loving, Forgetting its History

Loving ranks as a seminal Supreme Court decision and a vital civil rights victory. For three centuries, white America held interracial marriage bans fundamental to national identity and vital for building and policing racial boundaries. But despite the tremendous amount of progress since Loving, wide societal disparities remain as the structures marriage bans fostered still persist.

The 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania commissioned 57 fiberglass donkeys painted by local artists to represent each delegation to the convention. Virginia’s featured George Washington, Richard and Mildred Loving, and the state’s slogan since two years after the Loving ruling, “Virginia is for Lovers.”

Today the nation celebrates Loving as an example of racial transcendence and prejudice squashed. The Loving ruling can and should be celebrated as a momentous achievement. It not only led to the end of interracial marriage bans in 16 states, but more recently aided the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage for same-sex couples. A celebration of Loving, however, should not push out of public memory the three-centuries-long prohibitions on interracial marriage and their painful ramifications.